Early this year, the Pentagon’s strategic review signaled a shift in priorities for U.S. foreign policy, suggesting that more attention would be paid to the Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of this as a “pivot” toward Asia, signaling what for many analysts and ordinary Americans has been a long-overdue transition away from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East in general.
But there’s a problem with that. The act of pivoting involves turning your back, and the United States should not turn its back on the Middle East.
Of course it makes sense for the U.S. to pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific region, which will be both a leader in economic growth and a security challenge during the 21st century. It is not just the United States that understands this. In Jordan, we are also directing more of our attention eastward, which makes sense because we, along with much of the Middle East, are located in West Asia. Economic, political and military centers of gravity are clearly changing.
Still, America does have a duty to this region and to the Arab world in general. The euphoria generated by the “Arab awakening” cannot hide the fact that the Middle East is as much of a mess as it ever was. In 2009, President Obama spoke in Cairo of how “while America in the past has focused on oil and gas in this part of the world, we now seek a broader engagement.” Such engagement, which we all hope for, cannot be sustained by pivoting.
American military disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan is welcomed within the Arab world. But other types of U.S. engagement are still needed. The desire by many Middle Eastern countries for greater self-determination is also qualified by an obvious question: After a decade of war and continued stalemate in the peace process, will America abandon this region and leave it to pick up the pieces?
A sense of mission fatigue in Washington has meant that the lessons of history are being overlooked. Until there is peace between Israel and Palestine, this area of the world will continue to dominate the desks and the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. There are currently four central powers in the Middle East: Israel, Iran, Turkey and the U.S. Not one of those powers is Arab. Any substantive pulling back by America is likely to create a power vacuum. In a region where intermediaries are important, this will have consequences. For instance, there is no security forum in the Middle East in which Iran and Saudi Arabia sit at the same table.
Beyond the question of Iran, there is growing potential for the movement of nuclear fissile material, including weaponization technology, and biological agents, across the Middle East and North Africa. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, of which I am a board member, has concluded that 32 countries possess 1 kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear material. If that material ends up being illicitly moved anywhere, it is likely to end up here. West Asia and North Africa has long been a laboratory for every kind of weapon.
Recent upheavals have made borders far more porous: We have seen this in Syria, in Sinai and across the Sahel region, where a huge cache of weapons systems have crossed the border from Libya. The Middle East has the largest number of stateless and internally displaced peoples in the world, and recent upheavals have caused these numbers to surge. The U.N. estimates that well over 1 million people fled Libya to border countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger and Chad. Archipelagoes of the dispossessed exist throughout the region. Locking down weapons-usable material and the weapons-based underground economy has never been more difficult. The potential for nuclear terrorism within the region has never been greater.
The United States would not be wise to pivot too far or too fast. There is too much that has been left undone. America can help in three ways. First by focusing on the resourcefulness of the people of this region rather than the resources of their governments. The Middle East is the most militarized region of the world, yet nowhere else is insecurity such a physical and psychological fact of life. Programs that support start-up culture, creative enterprises and local good governance, or which provide training opportunities and micro-loans, actively combat anti-Western propaganda, promote social cohesion and propagate “human security.” People with hopes and opportunities do not become terrorists.
The second thing America can do is foster better relations between states within the region. The frameworks that connect West Asia and North Africa are ad hoc and personalized to an excessive degree. A lack of regional institutions means that when tensions rise, there is no release valve, and conflict is made all the more likely. At present no body exists to coordinate water and energy policy between countries, despite the fact these resources are shared, take no account of national boundaries and are quickly depleting. There is no Council for Security and Cooperation in the region.
Thirdly and finally, America can renew its legacy in the Middle East, and its image in the world, by bringing about a firm, just and equitable settlement to the peace process.
The move to project American leadership in the Asia-Pacific region through economic growth, regional security and enduring values, in the words of Hillary Clinton, is broadly based on the three elements of the 1975 Helsinki Act: security, economic and technical cooperation, and human rights. Taken together, they form the foundation of a promising new blueprint for relations not just with the Asia-Pacific region but with West Asia too.
Hassan Bin Talal, a member of Jordan’s royal family, is a board member of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and founder of the West Asia-North Africa Forum.